Natalie Zervou on Dance in the Age of Austerity

Jun 21, 2024

The relationship between dance and politics has long been a complex one. In moments of national and international crisis, artists are often at the center of resistance movements, and the embodied knowledges honed by dancers, choreographers, and performers can become key survival techniques for diverse communities. 

In episode 161 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews dance studies scholar and Ideas on Fire author Natalie Zervou, author of the new book Performing the Greek Crisis: Navigating National Identity in the Age of Austerity.

The book is out now from the University of Michigan Press, and it offers a deep dive into how the Greek dance world and arts communities navigated the decade-long Greek financial crisis that began in 2009.

In the interview, Natalie situates dance in Greece’s complex economic and political standing in the European Union, explaining how choreographers, performers, funders, and audiences manage this standing through the performing arts.

They also discuss the vibrant regional dance festival circuit in Greece, where festival organizers and dancers use them as platforms for political critique, cultural expression, and international engagement.

Natalie also addresses recent Greek dance performances about the European refugee crisis, explaining how they engage the urgent and racialized politics of mobility and displacement in the context of neoliberal capitalism and racist state violence.

They close out the episode with Natalie’s vision for a new creative economy in which dance and artistic labor is valued and the embodied arts serve as a vital way to build more just futures.

Cite this episode: Hannabach, Cathy (host). “Natalie Zervou on Dance in the Age of Austerity.” Imagine Otherwise. June 21, 2024. Produced by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire. Podcast. 25:22.

In this episode

– Greece’s precarious relationship in the European Union

– How dancers and artists responded to the 2009–2019 Greek financial crisis

– Dance performances that address the European refugee crisis and anti-immigrant violence

– Building a new creative economy around embodied knowledge

Cover of Performing the Greek Crisis with a dancer on stage at a regional dance festival

Performing the Greek Crisis

Navigating National Identity in the Age of Austerity

Natalie Zervou

A multifaceted read of the impact of the Greek financial crisis on the Greek dance and performing arts worlds.

About Natalie Zervou

Natalie Zervou is an assistant professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She holds a PhD in critical dance studies from the University of California, Riverside.

Natalie’s work focuses on the intersection of dance practices and the socio-political sphere—particularly the interplay between dance and crises.

Her first book, Performing the Greek Crisis: Navigating National Identity in the Age of Austerity (University of Michigan Press, 2024) explores how dancing bodies negotiate national identity construction in the fluctuating landscape of the 2009–2019 socio-political and economic crisis in Greece. 

Natalie’s new research project pairs dance studies with horror studies to explore bodies in extreme states of crisis, such as those proposed in horror films or live performances experimenting with grotesque aesthetics.

Teaching and learning resources


Click to read the transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just futures.

[00:00:12] I’m Cathy Hannabach, and my guest today on the show is dance studies scholar and Ideas on Fire author Natalie Zervou, who we were excited to work with on her awesome new book Performing the Greek Crisis: Navigating National Identity in the Age of Austerity.

[00:00:27] The book is out now from the University of Michigan Press, and it offers a deep dive into how the Greek dance world and arts communities navigated the decade-long Greek financial crisis that began in 2009.

[00:00:40] In our interview, Natalie situates dance in Greece’s complex economic and political standing in the European Union, explaining how choreographers, performers, funders, and audiences all manage this standing through the performing arts.

[00:00:55] We also discuss the vibrant regional dance festival circuit in Greece, where festival organizers and dancers use them as platforms for political critique, cultural expression, and international engagement.

[00:01:08] Natalie also addresses recent Greek dance performances about the European refugee crisis, explaining how they engage the urgent and racialized politics of mobility and displacement in the context of neoliberal capitalism and racist state violence.

[00:01:24] Finally, we close out the episode with Natalie’s vision for a new creative economy in which dance and artistic labor is valued and the embodied arts serve as a vital way to build more just futures.

[00:01:37] Thank you so much for being with us today, Natalie.

[00:01:39] Natalie Zervou: Thank you so much for having me.

[00:01:41] Cathy Hannabach: In this book, you show the ways that Greece has a pretty complicated role in European economic and political hierarchies—what you call a center/periphery relationship. I’m curious how that center/periphery relationship shapes the Greek dance communities that you’re writing about.

[00:02:00] Natalie Zervou: I feel like to answer that question, I need to provide a little bit of context about what led me to figure out this tension.

[00:02:09] I grew up in Greece, and I went to study abroad, first in the UK and then a little bit in Germany and then in the US. I saw how people view Greece internationally and, by extension, how they viewed me. That was an eye-opening experience because in some ways it’s what planted the seeds for this question of Greece’s positionality within the European Union.

[00:02:30] So on the one hand, there are all these narratives about Greece that refer to Ancient Greece and ideas and philosophies such as Greece being hailed as the quote unquote “cradle of Western civilization” or the “birthplace of democracy.” And all of those ideas impact the ways that the lineage of Greece is viewed in Western and Eurocentric notions of identity.

[00:02:54] And then on the other hand, there is modern Greece, and I still can’t help but think it’s kind of ironic that we have to specify that the Greece of today is quote unquote modern Greece. I think that that in itself says a lot.

[00:03:08] And then back to the question about how this relates to the center/periphery relationships, I feel that there’s this imagined ideal of Greece as the center of ideological constructs of Europe. And then there’s the reality of the present day, especially after the Greek financial crisis where Greece is very much put in the periphery or marginalized within the European Union. So that’s the first level of this center/periphery discussion.

[00:03:36] And then in terms of how dance fits into this, dance has always been very central in the process of identity construction in Greece. Upon the establishment of Greece’s independence, there were a few folk dances that were chosen and incorporated into physical education curricula across all the liberated areas, across all the areas that got liberated afterwards, because the initial nation-state comprised what is now just the southern part of Greece.

[00:04:04] So with that, we see that embodiment is really central to the perception of Greek identity. But then Greek identity is not often tied to contemporary dance, which is what I’m focusing on in the book, because contemporary dance is considered sort of an imported genre.

[00:04:21] That’s something that a lot of scholars I interviewed in the process of researching this book also told me about because it seems like the endemic experience of dancing Greece is about socializing, building relationships and kinship, and contemporary dance or really any type of concert dance, sort of puts a barrier between audience and performers because there’s someone on stage, and then there’s not as much live interaction.

[00:04:48] So the reason why I’m mentioning this is that it seems that dance is central in the process of national identity construction but, then, contemporary dance is kind of peripheral in that relationship, even within Greece.

[00:05:01] Then if we map that out internationally, we start to see that contemporary concert dance actually seems to be the main embodied language that artists have to converse with other people, other artists in the European Union across borders.

[00:05:18] So there it starts to become more of a central idea for relating across borders, even though it is peripheral within the Greek border. So I hope that starts to answer your question. It’s very complicated. I did my best to summarize it.

[00:05:34] Cathy Hannabach: I mean, folks are just going to have to read the rest of the book to get to it.

[00:05:37] Natalie Zervou: Right. There’s that.

[00:05:38] Cathy Hannabach: One of the things that I think is really interesting in how you frame some of these questions in the book is you talk about multiple scales or multiple levels. So for instance, you talk about how precarity operates both at the level of the nation with regards to national finances, the Greek financial crisis in particular, national identity, but also precarity operates at the level of the human body, the dancing body, the community body.

[00:06:06] What are some of the ways that you found through doing research for this book that Greek dancers and choreographers and artists are addressing those multiple scales of precarity?

[00:06:17] Natalie Zervou: So, precarity started as a primarily financial condition brought about by extensive budget cuts. And of course, we know that the arts are always the first sector to be impacted.

[00:06:27] I feel like I need to provide a little bit of context for how the system is set up in Greece. So, in order to produce either a choreographic work or a theater performance, choreographers or directors need to apply to the Ministry of Culture for a subsidy. There is a board that decides what the amount is of each subsidy based on the proposal and also who gets it, and not everyone gets it every time. So that in itself sets up a precarious landscape for artists to begin with, let alone during the crisis.

[00:06:58] In the book, I’m focusing primarily on the period between 2009 and 2019 as the main time of the crisis. But within that period, there’s also a sub-period between 2011 and 2017 when the ministerial subsidies for dance and theater completely stopped.

[00:07:15] So in that time, we see that initially the response of the artists is that they slow down and not a lot of works are being created until they figure out how to navigate this new landscape because everything that they took for granted up to that point has all of a sudden been taken away.

[00:07:34] And then, in the beginning, we see a lot of small-scale productions, such as solos or duets or ensembles of up to four people, because they could not support large casts. But then moving forward throughout the years, especially after 2013, where people had two years to adjust and see how to start navigating these new conditions, what followed was increased political mobilization.

[00:07:59] Artistic production was never really censored in Greece. But I would hypothesize that the lack of subsidies and also the lack of any government body or agenda that the artists had to gear their work toward to receive financial support really opened up doors for artistic experimentation afterwards because they no longer had to cater to anything or please anybody in order to receive the subsidies. So they could really do whatever they wanted. And that’s where their political agendas really came forward, especially because they were experiencing the crisis.

[00:08:36] So after this period of slowing down, they started coming together. We saw a lot of communal initiatives springing. We saw the creation of a sort of tit-for-tat economy where it was really about supporting one another. Like one person would do the lights one night and be an usher, and then when that person had a performance the other time, they would switch roles. Things like that.

[00:09:00] It became very much this idea that we kind of also observed during COVID of we’re all in this together. People realized that we all have the same experience. How can we support each other? And that’s kind of one of the main ways that they responded to precarity.

[00:09:17] And then I also want to say that a lot of choreographers who I interviewed and dancers told me that at the very beginning of the crisis, they felt sort of a need to remove themselves, oftentimes also from social situations. And there was this sense of looking inward or turning inward, which also led to a lot of productions emphasizing mental health, emphasizing the sense of alienation that was what a lot of people navigated during the crisis, and also emphasizing the strain that the crisis put on human relationships. I know that this is not really part of the question, but I also thought I would mention it.

[00:09:59] This is something that I observed in both my own methodology and my experience of having been trained as a dancer growing up. A lot of dancers mentioned using the tools that they gained in their dance training to navigate this new precarious reality. So an example being harnessing the tools of improvisation that already lived in their body to sort of improvise their way through this new fluctuating landscape.

[00:10:25] And that’s also something that I found in the process of writing the book and coming up with a theoretical framework because when I got back to Greece in 2013 to start doing this research, I mean, I grew up there, but it was the place that I no longer fully recognized because so much has changed.

[00:10:42] So I had a little bit of a similar experience to navigating an unknown landscape. I had to also improvise myself to come up with the solution and figure out where the research and the data is taking me to create the frameworks that you see in the book.

[00:10:58] Cathy Hannabach: It’s a really interesting example of how the research process often comes to mirror or at least have a close relationship to the thing that you’re studying itself. Where you’re hearing about the use of improvisation by the folks that you’re interviewing, but then you’re also having to do it yourself in the writing process.

[00:11:20] Natalie Zervou: Yeah, absolutely.

[00:11:21] Cathy Hannabach: Really cool. So, one of the chapters also looks at regional dance festivals across Greece, and these have different genres, they’re held in different locations, they have different audiences.

[00:11:34] How are dance communities using those kinds of regional festivals to navigate local issues in that specific region but also tapping into these broader international conversations?

[00:11:45] Natalie Zervou: I think this also relates to the center/periphery argument and discussion earlier, but slightly differently. So, for context again, most of the artistic production in contemporary concert dance, which is the focus of the book, throughout the year is primarily located in Athens, which is Greece’s capital, and not so much in a few other urban centers. But they’re not by any means comparable activity to what is happening in Athens.

[00:12:14] And most of the rehearsals and theaters are located there, so that’s where most of the activity is occurring. So the dance festivals that emerged during the crisis started offering opportunities for artists to tour their works within Greece.

[00:12:29] And here’s where we start to get again into a different level of the center/periphery discussion because Athens is the center of production and then the rest of Greece is the periphery where if we think of this idea of contemporary being an imported genre, it’s not very much a genre that audiences in the periphery are familiar with.

[00:12:49] So these festivals started as an effort to sort of de-center the dance scene and make concert dance more available to audiences in regional Greece and to introduce them and educate them about this genre.

[00:13:03] Now most of the festivals were also international in scope, as you mentioned, and this gave artists an additional incentive because they had increased opportunities to view internationally acclaimed work because they also invited a lot of international artists and also to present their work for international audiences without leaving Greece, which was something that a lot of them did not have the opportunity to do because of the crisis and the budget cuts.

[00:13:26] So many of these regional festivals really began fostering international dialogue between Greek artists and artists from all over the world.

[00:13:35] Now one thing that I feel like I should also mention in this response is that the fact that many of these festivals came about during the financial crisis. This is interesting because in some ways the crisis worked as a branding or marketing mechanism to establish these festivals as well and to attract international audiences who heard about the crisis and wanted to sort of satisfy their curiosity about what the conditions are on the ground in Greece.

[00:14:04] And they also perceived a lot of the festivals as grassroots activism initiatives, the reason being that a lot of these festivals, and we’re talking about approximately six or seven festivals that started in within the first three to four years of the crisis, some of which have really become well established nowadays and have continued to circulate and be organized on an annual basis.

[00:14:30] But the reasons why they tied these festivals to activism is because they were very much volunteer-based and very small initiatives when they started. The festival organizers took on all of the labor of not just organizing the festival, but they would also be stage manager, cleaners, ushers. They really did everything, even to the extent of sometimes hosting international artists and audiences in their houses because there wasn’t an infrastructure to support the festival otherwise.

[00:15:00] I feel like in some ways that contributed to the myth and the allure of these festivals, both as grassroots activist initiatives and also as a true experience of the Greek crisis, which then became sort of a gateway for tourism for these places.

[00:15:18] Cathy Hannabach: You close out this book by looking at Greek performances that address what’s often called the European refugee crisis, or an increase in displaced peoples moving across borders due to things like war, state violence, economic crises, such as the Greek financial crisis, and many, many others.

[00:15:35] I’m curious how those performances address racialized refugee politics and mobility in this context.

[00:15:42] Natalie Zervou: Yeah, thank you for that question. Again, I feel like I have to start with a little bit of context for our listeners. The Greek financial crisis, as I said, I situate in the book between 2009 and 2019, and what came to be known as the European refugee crisis is noted as reaching the level of a crisis around 2015.

[00:16:05] However, legal anthropologist Heath Cabot has argued that in Greece there was a crisis of asylum dating back all the way to 2004. So this was not something new that Greece had to deal with, but there was in fact inadequate infrastructure to support and process asylum claims of displaced populations for almost a decade already leading up to the crisis.

[00:16:28] So the crisis and the budget cuts just really intensified all of that process and made it even harder for people to process their claims and move on from Greece to other parts of the European Union. And again, in case anyone is unfamiliar, Greece is one of the main ports to the European Union because of its geographic location at the southeastern part of Europe, where it’s mainly accessible by sea through the continent of Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East. And also a lot of people could cross over the border at the north by Evros.

[00:17:03] Since the onset of the Greek financial crisis, there has been a steady rise of ethnocentric rhetoric in Greek politics, which really reached a peak in 2012 with the election of a fascist party in the parliament in 2012.

[00:17:17] Thankfully, there has been a trial, the party has been deemed a criminal organization, and a lot of the members have been convicted. But at the time, this increase in ethnocentric rhetoric, xenophobia, and increase in racially motivated violence led a lot of choreographers to really reflect on the shifting climate. They tried to respond to it by creating works that were aiming to raise awareness, raise audience awareness about these issues.

[00:17:46] So they brought in a lot of migrants and refugees and other people who were making their way through Greece to other parts of the European Union and involve them in the creative process.

[00:17:58] And here’s where it starts to get complicated because many of the participants actually reflect on these initiatives as really therapeutic experiences that gave them a sense of belonging and a sense of community. And that is definitely true because they did foster a lot of connections between the locals and the people who had recently arrived.

[00:18:20] But I think it also presents an interesting oxymoron because there’s, on the one hand, the sort of freedom of experience and freedom of movement that they can experience within the setting of the performance.

[00:18:35] But then the reality is that these people are stuck in Greece because they are experiencing what, again, Heath Cabot refers to as legal limbo. So they can’t actually leave until their claims, their asylum claims, are processed so they can move on to another country. And here’s the binary sort of dance being about movement and expression but then this feeling of being stuck.

[00:18:59] A lot of these works were documented on film and actually toured as dance films in international festivals, which creates a very jarring antithesis to the immobility of the displaced populations and the reality of their experience in Greece in that moment.

[00:19:15] Then another thing that I was considering is that they way that they were guided to explore this idea of freedom and to improvise was a lot of times driven through very Western or Euro-American practices and frameworks, such as improvisational scores or the practice of contact improvisation, which has American roots.

[00:19:41] So all of that raises questions for me about how much of their experience was truly reflected in terms of bringing the cultural richness on the stage and how much of that was a highly curated version of the refugee experience.

[00:19:58] This brings me to my last point, which is that a lot of times, yes, the performances were about raising awareness on these issues. So a lot of times they had to engage with the hardship and the resilience that refugees went through and encountered. But also I feel like after a certain point, these narratives became limiting for the displaced populations because they fixed them in a stereotype.

[00:20:27] I remember there was also—I don’t remember the exact year, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had this campaign with a slogan, and this is a quote of the slogan: refugees are not the crisis. It’s the narratives we tell about them. End quote.

[00:20:43] So that’s something that I took away, which does not only apply to the case of Greece. I observed that throughout other parts of Europe as well, after a certain point, engaging with refugees in performances also became sort of a trend. It started crossing the borders or raising the question of is it really engagement for the sake of education or is it veering into being exploitation?

[00:21:10] Cathy Hannabach: So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask folks, which really gets at the heart of why you write books like this, why you do this kind of research. And that’s that world that you’re working toward.

[00:21:21] So I’ll ask you the giant question that closes out every episode of this show. What is that world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:21:31] Natalie Zervou: Wow. Yeah, what a question. I think broadly, a world where the value of art is recognized and where creative labor is not undervalued or is not perceived as always being tangled with precarity.

[00:21:52] I’ve also been reflecting a lot on how there are, there seem to be increasingly many crises that we have to deal with in our lives these days. There’s, like, global health crisis, human rights, migrant crisis, financial, environmental. And I’m sure they’re unfortunately going to keep occurring as we move forward.

[00:22:12] The one thing that became clear to me while I was doing this research is that oftentimes when we are considering these crises, the default is to view them through a lens of human rights sort of statistics or numbers or other measurable factors that quantify that experience. And I found that this approach can be very dehumanizing because it doesn’t take into account the toll that crisis have on people’s lived experience ,on their mental health, and especially on their body, since I’m coming from a dance background.

[00:22:41] I’ve said this in the book as well, but I view crisis as sort of a moment of rupture when everything that you took for granted up to that point is in flux and your only stable referent is your body. So inevitably, I think, as I said before, with what interview is reported, crises instigate this inward turn and focus on oneself.

[00:23:04] So to return to your question, ideally, I would envision a world where the body, embodied knowledge, and lived experience are taken into consideration in the process of political decision making and where people are not treated as statistics, but their actual lived experience and embodied impact of any decision that is made is recognized and thoroughly considered.

[00:23:28] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all these ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:23:33] Natalie Zervou: Thank you so much as well.

[00:23:38] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Imagine Otherwise. A big thanks to Natalie as well for sharing her work.

[00:23:46] Our team really loved working with Natalie on her new book, Performing the Greek Crisis: Navigating National Identity in the Age of Austerity. The book is out now from the University of Michigan Press.

[00:23:57] You can discover more about the book and grab your copy in the episode show notes on our website, which also have a detailed transcript, related books and interviews, and a teaching guide.

[00:24:07] If you’d like some interdisciplinary editing or indexing support for your own book, we would love to hear from you.

[00:24:13] Our team of developmental editors, copyeditors, indexers, book marketers, and publishing consultants specialize in interdisciplinary books like Natalie’s and can help you go from draft to published. You can get in touch on our website at

[00:24:30] This episode of Imagine Otherwise was produced and edited by me, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:24:35] If this episode inspired you, make sure to subscribe to the show at In addition to new episodes, subscribers also get access to exclusive writing and publishing resources, book news from the Ideas on Fire author community, and invitations to interdisciplinary events to help you imagine otherwise.

[00:24:56] Finally, you can find Ideas on Fire on social media at @ideasonfirephd, where we share all kinds of resources to help interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and ultimately build more just worlds.

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